A "sinker" indeed, if you know what I mean. Sony's Choice Collection vault of hard-to-find cult and library titles has released Hook, Line & Sinker, the 1969 comedy from Columbia Pictures, directed by 77-year-old George Marshall ("Mr. Marshall...Mr. Marshall? Wake up, Mr. Marshall...we're ready for a take,"), and starring Jerry Lewis, Peter Lawford, and Anne Francis. A woefully unfunny outing that finds a terminally bored Monsieur Jerry playing a terminally ill suburbanite, Hook, Line & Sinker was just one more nail in the coffin of Jerry's fast-fizzling leading man movie career...and it hasn't aged any better 40+ years later. No extras for this nice-looking widescreen transfer.
Granite Life and Casualty insurance agent Peter J. Ingersoll (Jerry Lewis) is dying in the suburbs. Not literally...but he's not exactly "living," either. Married to pretty homemaker Nancy (Anne Francis), who keeps a sharp eye on the family budget, Peter's work at Granite is monotonous and unfulfilling, and his weekends at home are a predictable series of slapstick chores and missed opportunities for sex. Only fishing gives him real pleasure, but even that is deemed too expensive a hobby to pursue. Cue family friend Dr. Scott Carter (Peter Lawford), who delivers a shocking diagnosis: Peter has two months to live due to a "arterial coronary malfunction." When Peter informs Nancy, she proposes a radical plan for Peter: do what makes you truly happy and enjoy your last few months fishing around the world. When Peter asks how they'll pay for it, Nancy says, "charge it," and no one will make her pay when he dies. Peter agrees, and flies off to Acapulco, Brazil, Jamaica, and finally Portugal, before Dr. Carter unexpectedly shows up and delivers another stunning verdict: Peter isn't really dying. So...how is Peter going to pay for that $100,000 last-fling tab?
As I've written in several reviews on Jerry Lewis, both in his movie and TV careers there is no more loyal admirer of his considerable talents than I. I happen to believe that The Nutty Professor is a bona fide masterpiece of visual and aural comedy―as good as any classic a serious-minded "film historian" (yeech) would champion. I see gold in Lewis vehicles that critics and even other Jerry fans dislike (I would watch Boeing Boeing any day over a Preston Sturges comedy...and I don't care who knows it). And I can find something to laugh at in any Jerry Lewis vehicle...as I did in Hook, Line & Sinker. However, the single joke that made me laugh out loud here―a TV announcer promos the upcoming 7:30 movie: They Dare Not Love, starring George Brent and Roddy McDowall―had nothing to do with Jerry Lewis, and in a Jerry Lewis comedy, that's an astounding―and depressing―state of affairs.
Written by Rod Amateau (who could direct something slight-but-charming like Drive-In...or write something execrable like Pussycat, Pussycat, I Love You), Hook, Line & Sinker came out at the end-game of Lewis's major movie career, after diminishing critical and box-office returns from efforts such as Three on a Couch, Way...Way Out, The Big Mouth, and Don't Raise the Bridge, Lower the River were pushing Lewis further and further away from his once-vaunted status as Hollywood's most-popular and highest-paid comedian. Released during the year of Easy Rider, when old guard Hollywood (which Lewis arguably could be considered a part of at this point in his career) had a nervous breakdown trying to gauge and cater to changing audience tastes, Hook, Line & Sinker is a prime example of Lewis failing to embrace that transition. Still committed to making movies that appealed to families (hence his upcoming, ill-fated excursion into the family-friendly Jerry Lewis Cinemas theater chain), while consciously trying to suppress his famous "little kid" persona (because it simply wasn't working anymore for the 43-year-old performer), Lewis's "adult" comedies like Hook, Line & Sinker weren't sophisticated or original enough to attract the young adults and couples flooding theaters in 1969, while his slapstick bits were sadly familiar and just plain tired to the younger kids who could watch his earlier, funnier movies on TV. In a year when the future two "kings" of 1970s auteur comedy, Woody Allen and Mel Brooks, were moving swiftly towards pushing the boundaries of screen comedy, Jerry Lewis was having a fake garden mole spit water in his face.
A cheap-jack production except for some inexplicable location shooting in Lisbon (they saved money by shooting on the Bewitched sets, and outside the Hazel/Gidget house at the Columbia ranch), Hook, Line & Sinker's painfully artificial sets are no more distressing, though, than the muted, familiar slapstick and suburban sitcom material that fills the first half of the movie. Scenes like Jerry pulling a sink out with a plunger, getting paint spilled on his head, trying to find a part in his hair, and tiredly repeating the old W.C. Fields shaving bit from It's a Gift, are poorly executed here by Lewis and a clearly phoning-it-in director, George Marshall (this was his last feature film). Bits like Lewis waiting to have sex with Francis (completely wasted here), and then having her fall asleep, are slackly paced and groaningly predictable. At this point, Hook, Line & Sinker plays like a poor man's Doris Day sex comedy...without the sex or comedy. And then the would-be noirish fishing trip begins...and nothing happens. It's hollow, with stock shots of swordfish and marlins being pulled into boats alternating with Jerry on various studio nightclub and hotel sets, working out bits that are both cliched (the mouth-to-mouth bit with the voluptuous lifeguard) and simply unfunny (Jerry the drunk making himself a drink). The pacing is fatally slow, punctuated by occasional voice-over narration drops by Lewis along the lines of (when he and Lawford are looking for a suitable corpse to double for Lewis), "What we were looking for wasn't that easy to dig up...sorry about that." Yes, he actually apologizes for the joke in the voice-over. Unbelievable.
The final sight gag, which has been laboriously set up throughout the movie as Jerry tells his story in flashback to a bunch of Chilean doctors, is pathetic enough ( SPOILER ALERT! A swordfish is sticking through Jerry). However, there's one rather remarkable shot in Hook, Line & Sinker that's far more troubling than this weak pay-off. In the middle of Jerry's drunk-making-a-drink bit, he stops and stares straight into the camera. Lewis, who looked quite fit and tanned in the first part of the movie (no sweating and bloating from the Percodan like in other outings), peers out of a middle-aged, hopeless, dazed face, telling us in a thousand words what's going on inside him at that very moment: he's bored to tears. All the wonderful, manic energy of his youth, and the laser-like genius of his art and craft at the heights of The Nutty Professor's brilliant dual performance, are gone. For fans of Lewis, lovers of his persona and the influence he had on our generation, it's a sobering, and deeply depressing, moment to behold.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.